Further on from our April Home Truths column about temporary housing for evacuees in the Tohoku region, local governments in the area are also facing another related problem: an oversupply of permanent public housing built expressly for victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake. These are apartment buildings, not unlike public housing complexes erected in other parts of Japan, that accept people who were left homeless by the disaster and were either already living in public housing destroyed in the disaster or who were living in their own homes and, for whatever reason, do not plan to rebuild those homes due to financial limitations or age.
An article in the March 15 Asahi Shimbun describes three such buildings that are now completed in Kesennuma–two 6-story structures and one that’s 10 stories, altogether comprising 165 units. People started moving in in Jan. 2015, and at present more than half the residents are over 65. As the 51-year-old community leader of the complex told the newspaper, already ten residents have died in the past two years, among them three people who were living alone and whose bodies weren’t discovered for a few days. The leader is concerned because, while the vacancy rate for this particular complex is low right now, Kesennuma eventually will have 2,087 units of public disaster housing, to be completed this May, and it seems to be too much. Given that most of the victims who move in are elderly, the local government has now estimated that by 2025, 27 percent of the residents will have died or moved into nursing homes, and by 2035 51 percent will be gone. This is only to be expected, but there doesn’t seem to be anyone to replace them. The city has said that when vacancies arise it will solicit low income families to apply for units, but projections are that there won’t be many of those since so many young people moved away from the area after the disaster. As it stands, Kesennuma will have five times as many low-income public housing units as they had before the earthquake, but now they have much fewer residents overall and few prospects for any influx. The population now stands at about 64,000, or 13 percent less than a year ago. The trend is that after graduating high school, young people are leaving the city.
The city staff is too busy now helping evacuees and other victims move into public housing that they don’t have time to think about the future, which could be a problem. The complexes will be expensive to maintain, thus placing a burden on an already stressed city budget. One solution would be to set up a foundation for large scale repairs and maintenance, or even demolition if too many units are empty. The central government provides subsidies for building the units as well as rent subsidies that go to the city in order to keep rents affordable. It does not provide funds for maintenance or repairs.
The main culprit, as we pointed out with regard to the temporary housing situation in the area, is the low population density in Tohoku. Following the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, Hyogo Prefecture built 10,000 “disaster danchi” units. Twenty years later, 4,700 of them are still occupied by victims, with the remaining units rented out to low-income families. There is always a need for public housing in Kobe and the surrounding urban areas, but not so much in Tohoku. Even with the demand, there is a plan to demolish 5,000 units of public housing in Hyogo by 2025. Similarly, there is no worry about disaster housing vacancies in the areas of Kumamoto Prefecture affected by the big earthquake two years ago.
Eventually, there will be 30,000 public disaster housing units built throughout the three affected prefectures in Tohoku. As of March 31, 83 percent of the construction was completed. What’s ironic is that there are still 34,000 people living in temporary housing who are waiting to get out. Most of these people are waiting for the land on the property they own to be reconstructed so they can rebuild their homes, but work has been delayed due to a shortage of workers and materials, partly caused by the 2020 Olympics, which the government has prioritized. As these residents get older they may abandon their plans for rebuilding, take their disaster relief money and use it for their old age, so they could conceivably move into public housing, but the whole matter of getting on with their lives is clouded in uncertainty at this point and affects the entire government plan, which has never been very clear in the first place.
In any case, the population of the 41 municipalities, not counting Sendai, that line the coast of the region has decreased by 140,000 since 2010, and it’s had a devastating effect on local industry and commerce. People are moving to urban areas for jobs–Sendai itself has seen its population grow by 3 percent. The only lucrative work right now in the disaster zone is reconstruction of infrastructure and land, but for the most part the workers are being imported. The remaining people in Tohoku are too old for that kind of labor.